Monday, 5 January 2009

Ideas, Not Money, Alleviate Poverty

A thought provoking extract from a lecture by Philip Emeagwali (once voted history’s greatest scientist of African descent) in Canada is as good as any start to 2009 for this blog, even though it contains a sense of irony and to some may even be depressing. Emeagwali explains quite simply that:

"Unless Africa significantly increases its intellectual capital, the continent will remain irrelevant in the 21st century and even beyond. Africa needs innovators, producers of knowledge, and wise men and women who can discover, propose, and then implement progressive ideas. Africa’s fate lies in the hands of Africans and the solution to poverty must come from its people. The future that lies ahead of Africa is for Africa to create, after the people have outlined their vision. We owe it to our children to build a firm foundation to enable them go places we only dreamt. For Africa to take center stage in today’s economic world, we have to go out and compete on a global basis. There is simply no other way to succeed."

Afro-IP is about African intellectual property and the people and organisations who strive to protect, create, licence, harness and enforce it, which is why the piece is a useful reminder on Afro-IP's first birthday. Emeagwali lectures that:

"When African men and women of ideas, who will give birth to new ideas, have fled to Europe and the United States, then the so-called African Renaissance cannot occur in Africa. It can only occur in Paris, London and New York. There are more Soukous musicians in Paris, than in Kinshasha; more African professional soccer players in Europe, than in Africa. African literature is more at home abroad than it is in Africa. In other words, Africans in Europe are alleviating poverty in Europe, not in Africa. Until the men and women of ideas — the true healers of Africa — start returning home, the African Renaissance and poverty alleviation will remain empty slogans. After all, the brightest ideas are generated and harnessed by men of ideas."

This may be so but it is nevertheless a controversial and ironic statement to make. Take for example, the case of musicians whose music (their intellectual capital) is grossly underprotected in most countries in Africa - so who would blame them for leaving, on that basis alone? Emeagwali himself is a case in point - his Wikepedia extract reveals that apart from a few very good pats on the back for his achievements (he is mooted as the father of the Internet), he holds no recognised patents for his results and his defining piece of work was not accepted for publication by his peers. Moreover, he studied in the US and appears to still live there, together with the irony.

The links to this article can be found here: and here:


Asiimwe Paul said...


I couldnt agree more with your observations. I think the god Emeagwali needs to taste the pudding in order to know how it tastes. Increasingly, my view is that Africa should focus on diffusion of knowledge rather than limiting people to geographical spaces. See for instance the work taking place here We need to focus more on the licensing mechanisms and technology uptake initiatives that will enhance and encourage development in Africa. Paul

goldenrail said...

The example of poor IP protection for music is a good example of reasons people leave, but I think the problem is deeper than that. A prominent Intellectual Property professor at the University of Jos explained to me that the smart people leave, not because they necessarily want to, but because they just can't get the resources they need to do their work. The law school where she teaches has almost no books in its library, and while the students do have WestLaw and Lexis accounts, the computers in the library have all been fried by power surges and don't work. The students in the engineering and medical schools have trouble running their experiments because they have to keep constant generator power going for anything they want to do.
It's sort of a Catch-22, Africa needs intelligent African inventors, creators and engineers to stay in Africa and develop Africa, but most of Africa is to underdeveloped for them to work effectively. (And when it's a public good, like electricity, that's a base problem, you start getting into government issues, and that's a whole new can of worms.)